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Remembering the Kanji I: a complete course on how not to forget the meaning and writing of Japanese Characters

by James W. Heisig
University of Hawaii Press, 5th Edition, 2007
ISBN 0824831659

Reviewed by Laurence M. "Lonnie" Wiig
M.A., Hiroshima University, Asian Studies;
Professional Diploma, University of Hawaii, Secondary Education, Foreign Languages (Japanese);
Japanese teacher, Medford (Oregon,USA) Schools,1990-97

"Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them." -- H. D. Thoreau

Are you a non-Japanese who has a "kanji dream?" Can you envision yourself looking at a page of adult-level printed Nihongo (Japanese) and actually being able to read it aloud flawlessly in Nihongo and then interpreting the contents of the page smoothly and swiftly in your native language? If your kanji dream is at this level, you might benefit from internalizing Jim Heisig's revolutionary kanji-mastery system presented in "Remembering the Kanji, Volume I: A complete course on how not to forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese characters" (referred to as "Meaning and Writing" in this review) and "Remembering the Kanji, Volume II: A systematic guide to reading Japanese characters" (referred to as "Reading" in this review).

Fact: By world standards, Japan has a remarkably literate population. Its two biggest newspapers, the Yomiuri and the Asahi, have the largest daily circulations of all the newspapers in the world.

Fact: To read, either silently or aloud, adult-level written Nihongo fluently, you need to be able to understand the 1,945 kanji designated by Japan's Ministry of Education as "general-use kanji" (joyo kanji).

After living in Japan and working closely with Japanese people for eleven years, I have the impression that most Japanese high school graduates, and almost all native-speaker Japanese university graduates, are able to understand and use at least 95% of Japan's 1,945 general-use kanji.

How do native speakers of Japanese raised in Japan internalize the 1,945 general-use kanji? The process involves starting Japanese first graders with the most readily grasped symbols such as one, two, O three, dog, see, tree and X forest. Some three and a half years later, by the end of fourth grade, Japanese children have mastered a total of 640 kanji including 200 kanji presented during the fourth grade such as D be fond of, pine tree, and stomach.

During fifth and sixth grade they are introduced to easy kanji such as desk and phrase as well as complex (but frequently encountered) symbols like x police and m cram school.

By the end of 4,380 days (365 days/year x 12 years = 4,380 days) of Japanese education, kanji literacy training is complete. If you have that kind of time, one kanji every two days, perhaps you would like to become literate the way Japanese youngsters do: lots of forced feeding, peer pressure, rote memory, repeated drawing. Not to mention the linguistic advantages of being surrounded by kanji every day of your life on television, cell phone screens, storefronts, and in video games, magazines, advertisements, comic books, newspapers, textbooks, trash novels, highbrow literature, love letters, and just about any other form of written communication you can name.

Let's assume that you don't have 4,380 days in which to master 1,945 kanji. If you will take a brief internet diversion to www.amazon.com to check out the customer reviews under "Remembering the Kanji I," you can see that Michael Matweyou III of Ohio claims to have learned to write Heisig's first 1,000 kanji from memory in 29 days and Pete Mauser of Shiga, Japan, was able to write all 1,945 Joyo Kanji from memory after three and a half months of study. J. Martin Eidsath of Socorro, New Mexico, claims he learned to write 2000 kanji from memory in two weeks. And a "reader in South Carolina" claims she/he could still identify 1,500 kanji by sight and could still write 1,000 from memory two years after using Heisig's "Meaning and Writing."

How is this possible?? We are talking here about "thinking outside the box." We are witnessing "kanji astronauts" (Heisig, Matweyou, Mauser, Eidsath, and "South Carolina") trying to convince members of the "kanji flat earth society" (most professional teachers of Nihongo as a foreign language and writers of kanji textbooks for students from non-kanji backgrounds) that the earth is actually round.

In "Meaning and Writing" you will NOT find any of the following accessories normal in kanji-for-foreigners texts. There are:

-- No example sentences given in Nihongo;
-- No example compound words;
-- Not a single hiragana or katakana;
-- No pronunciations listed above or near the kanji;
-- No little boxes for you to practice writing kanji in;
-- No sample sentences or passages to be translated from Nihongo into English;
-- No reading exercises; and
-- No introduction written in Nihongo for native-speaker teachers.

"Meaning and Writing" is a book that most native speakers of Nihongo would consider severely lacking. This is not a book that any native speaker teacher of Nihongo I am aware of would recommend as a tool for acquiring literacy in his/her mother tongue.

Here is what Heisig's "Meaning and Writing" DOES provide you with:

(1) A magnificent, inspirational, must-read introduction that gives the hope of achieving literacy to both Nihongo novices and Nihongo old-timers tired of constantly re-learning and forgetting kanji.

(2) A step-by-careful-step system that leads you directly to kanji mastery. Rather than overwhelming you with two, three, four and more English meanings per kanji, as many well-intentioned Nihongo teachers and textbook writers do, Heisig assigns one AND ONLY ONE English meaning per character. He calls these the system's "keywords." In the case of the frequently-seen kanji G (which occurs as the first character in the compound G, "magazine"), the author asks you to memorize and think of G as "MISCELLANEOUS." In your process of mastering the writing from memory of all 1,945 general-use kanji, Heisig Sensei does NOT want you to be troubled with the likes of G also meaning "various," "sundry," "motley," "mixed," "blended," "disorderly," "coarse," "rough," "low class," and "ordinary." He urges you to hold off on dealing with that kind of information until AFTER YOU HAVE LEARNED TO WRITE ALL THE KANJI FROM MEMORY. Heisig's mottos are: "First things first!!" and "Divide and conquer!!"

(3) A name for every part of every kanji. For example, the author asks you to use the arbitrary mnemonic label "turkey" for the right side of these characters: B , y and G. He gives the name "teepee" to the top half of o and . Although he sometimes uses the traditional Chinese explanations for some kanji elements, he is by no means rigidly chained to tradition. Heisig likes to use names for kanji elements that lend themselves to easily-recalled stories that facilitate memory. @

(4) The first 100 pages of "Meaning and Writing," titled "Part One: Stories," carefully and methodically teach you the art and importance of utilizing a vivid story for recalling the writing from memory of each and every kanji. For instance, the author teaches you that his character No. 114, , means "resemblance." He then adds that in other kanji which include (resemblance) as an element, you should picture as "spark" or "candle" as opposed to a concept as vague as "resemblance." This technique assists you in learning to recall the writing of his character No. 144 , extinguish, in which you are asked to envision "water" (the three little lines on the left side of ) being sprayed on "sparks" to "extinguish" them.

(5) "Part Two: Plots," 65 pages in length, starts to wean you from being reliant on the author's detailed stories. "Part Three: Elements," (the last 242 pages) assumes that you now have the capacity to make up your own vivid memory stories.

When you have completed "Meaning and Writing," (and you might well be able to complete this undertaking in nine months or less), you will have the ability to write all 1,945 general-use kanji from memory when you see the English keywords on the flashcards that the author shows you how to make. You will then have a skill that was unthinkable before Heisig Sensei discovered his English-to-kanji system at the start of his Nihongo studies in the 1970s. You can expect Japanese people, including native speaker teachers of Nihongo at schools outside Japan, to be dumbfounded and baffled as long as you live. You will also be ready to buy a copy of Heisig's Volume II, "Reading," and start to learn how the kanji are used to form compounds and how they are pronounced. You might also want to start a subscription to the Asahi Shimbun or the Yomiuri Shimbun to hone your kanji skills with. Or read Japanese novels for your enjoyment.

Read another review of "Remembering the Kanji I."